You know what's kind of wild? Kansas will be the deepest team in the country no matter what.
By any rational standard -- which is to say, one that excludes the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats -- the Jayhawks will enter the 2015-16 season with an exceptionally full and uncommonly consistent roster. Their only two departures this offseason, Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, were mostly role players in their one-and-done campaigns. The heart and soul of a group that won an 11th straight Big 12 title -- and then some -- is very much intact.
So, yes, senior forward Perry Ellis and rock-solid point guard Frank Mason III are still here. But so are Wayne Selden and Jamari Traylor, two more starters from a season ago. So is Brannen Greene, a 6-foot-7 3-point specialist still rounding into a complete offensive weapon. So is Devonte' Graham, an elite sophomore point guard who acquitted himself well after an early-season injury hampered his start. So is Landen Lucas, whose fundamental work frequently kept Alexander off the court a season ago. So is Hunter Mickelson, the former Arkansas transfer and little-used bench center who suddenly dominated this summer's World University Games trip to South Korea. And so is sophomore Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who joined Kansas as a 17-year-old freshman with a skinny frame and minimal English, and who remains the apple of NBA scouts' eye.
Throw in four-star freshman forward Carlton Bragg (and, if you like, four-star shooting guard Lagerald Vick), and Bill Self will have 10 (or 11) good-to-very-good players on his 2015-16 roster. Self's players will be more experienced, more developed, more cohesive. Self will have positional and rotational flexibility. Kansas' ceiling might not be as high as Maryland's or Kentucky's; its talent might not be as overwhelming. But KU's baseline expectation -- the confidence with which you can project another ho-hum conference title -- will be the nation's highest.
So: What makes this otherwise banal prediction wild?
Because all of it is true whether or not freshman center Cheick Diallo plays a single minute of college basketball.
And yet, at the same time, Diallo represents the best chance Kansas has of exceeding its already-high baseline. His presence could well prove the difference between a very good team and a real national title contender. His rim protection could close the gap between a solid defense and a dominant one. And Diallo's sheer talent -- his athleticism, enthusiasm and sense of flair -- could transform an otherwise unremarkable viewing experience into one of the sport's most exhilarating.
Diallo is, in many ways, the perfect KU frontcourt addition. He plays a frenetic, attacking brand of basketball on both ends of the floor, which he transitions between at a striking rate. He blocks shots, rebounds, rim-runs and dunks with two hands. His game is simple and authoritative. It has also been described as raw. That's fair. But Diallo's hands are excellent, and his footwork on the block and on the break is awfully good for a dude who started playing basketball five years ago.
Besides, a little raw rim strength sounds like the ideal complement for Ellis' cerebral outside-in attack. One of Kansas' only defensive flaws was rebounding; Diallo seems like an obvious improvement there. More generally, KU's top 2015 recruit plugs the 2013-14 edition's most notable offensive holes. The Jayhawks shot just 46.4 percent from 2-point range, but a huge percentage of their field goal attempts (71.6) came from inside the arc. Nearly 13 percent of Kansas' available shots were blocked. Having a ferocious finisher around the rim -- a constant lob threat from high-post passes and penetration -- could lead not only to more efficient scoring but more evenly distributed space. And hey, if he does pick up a jumper …
“A lot of people say, ‘Cheick cannot shoot. Blah, blah, blah,’” the Kansas forward said with a smile during Thursday's KU basketball media day. “So I’ve got to prove to people that I can shoot. … If [a defender] doesn’t come to me, a second or so, I’m going to shoot in your face so easy,” Diallo said with a laugh. “That’s so simple. That’s why I was like, ‘I’ve got to keep shooting.’”
“I feel like if people are asking me … yes, I am [the best player in the 2015 class],” Diallo said at media day. “I like to compare. I like to say that I am the best.”
Maybe he's just selling it well, but Diallo's claim doesn't seem totally far-fetched. He might also struggle, right? We don't know, and we won't, not until we see him in action.
Which brings us to the biggest question of all: Whether the NCAA will rule Diallo ineligible thanks to coursework he took at Our Savior New American in Centereach, New York. Self has remained upbeat about the odds of Diallo joining the team before the season begins, but there's no telling which way the investigation could go. The season is just around the corner.
Fortunately for KU, its hopes for the 2015-16 season don't rest on its marquee prospect. This will be an extremely deep and high-quality team -- top-five good, even -- if Diallo never leaves the practice court.
Yet Diallo is also the best hope Kansas has to transcend safe predictions and incremental trajectories. He is the biggest reason why the Jayhawks could go beyond solidity and experience and depth -- why they might yet become something more.
Let's see if he gets the chance.